Instead of focusing on the future of Daesh, let’s remember the Yazidis they enslaved in the past
Following the assassination of Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi by US special forces during a raid on February 3, policy analysts and international media alike raised questions about the future of Daesh. However, the national security fixation on the future of the Daesh after the death of its leader obscures a pressing human security and gendered analysis of terrorism.
Qurayshi was one of the highest-ranking figures in Daesh, responsible for ordering the sexual enslavement of Yazidi women. Rather than just asking about the future of Daesh, did anyone once think to ask about the future of the Yazidi women enslaved by the terror group?
The death of Daesh’s leader serves as an opportunity to examine why violent groups target women during conflict. Daesh’s motivations were not unique; gendered violence has been a tragic component of political violence in the past, and unfortunately, will likely also be so in the future.
The need for a human security lens
While traditional notions of national security focus on the military means used to protect abstract notions of the nation, sovereign territory and borders, human security refers to emphasising the protection of vulnerable groups during conflict, including women, children, or refugees.
In 2014 article, “The Islamic State of Sexual Violence,” Aki Peritz and Tara Maller argued that “[t]hose covering war may be more inclined to cover airstrikes, beheadings, and market bombings because they are historically viewed as ‘hard’ security issues, while threats to women and children tend to be viewed as ‘softer’ humanitarian concerns.”
Indeed, their assessment proved true years later. Most media focused on the “hard” security issues of Qurayshi’s death, the military details of the raid, or how many Daesh fighters are left.
From a human security perspective, the Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority in Iraqi and Syria, were particularly vulnerable to Daesh’s depredations, as the terrorists labelled their syncretic faith as “devil worship.” In terms of their future, this community has to overcome a collective trauma inflicted by Daesh.
Why did Daesh enslave Yazidi women?
Allegedly, it was Qurayshi himself who lobbied for the enslavement of Yazidi women after Daesh invaded their homeland in Iraq in 2014. The group’s higher echelons did not universally approve of the decision at that time.
According to Feras Kilani’s research based on Iraqi intelligence documents and prison files, Qurayshi was the only Iraqi who argued for this enslavement, along with a group of extremist non-Iraqi leaders.
On the other hand, the Iraqi leaders rejected the idea out of fear that their wives and daughters in Iraq may be targeted as revenge, demonstrating that this debate was for “pragmatic” reasons. Qurayshi’s faction won out.
When it administered a state from 2014 to 2018, Daesh traded in various commodities. The first was petroleum, and the second was antiquities. Finally, in their perverted view, the enslaved Yazidi women were treated as commodities, managed by the bureaucracy of this state.
Sexual violence in Daesh served two purposes. It served as a means of building morale among its fighters. As the terrorist group saw it, the Yazidi women were rewards or “war spoils” for its fighters.
Second, the sexual violence sought to demoralise the enemy, demonstrating they cannot protect “their women.” The enslavement of Yazidi women worked in tandem with the destruction of Syria’s and Iraq’s pre-Islamic heritage.
Both tactics attempted to forge a homogeneity within their so-called “Islamic” State. Daesh sought the erasure of a pre-Islamic past through the destruction of pre-Islamic antiquities or what it deemed as “non-Islamic peoples,” thus expelling Christians from Mosul, or enslaving Yazidi women as a means to ensure they would not be able to give birth to more Yazidi children.
National security policy towards Daesh, whether it was Iraqi, American, or NATO’s was framed in terms of traditional security goals, such as strengthening the Iraqi state and military and preventing the terror group from expanding to the region and the West. Amongst these agendas, human security was relegated as a secondary concern.
After Daesh’s defeat, one of the most pressing emergency mental health crises in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), involving the Yazidi women who were held captive by Daesh or witnessed its violence in towns such as Sinjar, has been forgotten.
The current crisis of traumatised Yazidi women is also complicated by the rival spheres of Iraqi national policies, including the federal-level Ministry of Health of Iraq and its rival, subnational Ministry of Health in the KRG.
This rivalry has only complicated the Iraqi state’s capacity to interact with donor nations such as the Netherlands and Germany, as well as the World Health Organization and transnational medical organisations such as Doctors Without Borders, who have designed human security strategies for traumatised Yazidi women.
Implementing strategies to protect vulnerable populations, such as women and minorities, children, or refugees in general, require long-term commitments such as helping develop the local infrastructure and NGOs to establish mental health rehabilitation programs. However, these are often abandoned when the immediate military goal, destroying a terrorist threat, has been achieved on the battlefield.
National security strategies focus on erasing a terrorist group like Daesh militarily. However, even if Daesh could be obliterated physically by military means, it still survives in the memories and nightmares of traumatised individuals, such as Yazidi women.
If the international community really wanted to undermine the legacy of Daesh, it could focus on and allocate resources to the present mental health crisis amongst the Yazidi women, which would cost a fraction of the military tactics used to undo the legacy of the terrorist group. Finally, as the world’s attention turns from the Middle East to the war in Ukraine, this toxic legacy from Iraq offers the vital lesson that a human security plan is just as pressing for this nation as it is for Iraq.
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